Bulawayo based curator Mthabisi Phili shares thoughts on the current state of the arts and education in Zimbabwe
Working simultaneously as both an independent curator and founder of Voices in Colour, an organisation dedicated to connecting contemporary cultures through artistic discourse, Mthabisi Phili is an essential part of the discussion around emerging artistic practice in Zimbabwe.
Following his role as Exhibitions Officer at the Visual Arts Association in Bulawayo, Phili has worked on exhibitions at the National Gallery of Bulawayo which include, Discovering Identities (2008), Voices in Colour (2009), Blue-Pencil (2010), Perception360 (2011), P.S. My speak! (2012), and Emergency (2012).
Therefore, considering Phili’s curatorial contributions, we caught up with him, to find out his opinions on the current state of the Zimbabwean art scene and challenges facing the countries emerging artistic discourse.
Houghton Kinsman | How would you describe the current state of the art scene in Zimbabwe?
Mthabisi Phili | From an economic point of view, it depends on what we compare it to. For instance, comparing the art scene to South Africa and an earlier Zimbabwe will prove that the art scene is less than what it used to be. Economically speaking, sales are less than what they used to be.
From a quality point of view there seems to be more competitive artworks currently as a result of Zimbabwe’s involvement in the Venice Biennale over the past 4 years and also because of the chemistry and contact with the outside world – artists can exchange ideas. For example, Portia Zvavahera can now easily access the South African art market, along with any other artist who has the ambitions to do so.
In terms of education, there is still no tertiary institution that offers a Fine Art degree in Zimbabwe. This is a dire situation for artistic development; organizations like my own Voices in Colour have resorted to workshops in order to educate the usually self-taught artists.
There are still perhaps only 2 main galleries in Zimbabwe, the National Gallery and Delta Gallery. They have stood the test of time and have influenced a lot of artists. They are slowly being joined by other organizations that are now influencing artists through exchange programs and discussions with foreign artists, these are Voices in Colour in Bulawayo and Njelele Gallery in Harare. It still remains a struggle to get artists to familiarise themselves with art practices that are occurring outside the borders, hence existing art organisations have a mountain to climb especially as there are no formal structures for art education.
Unchartered Territories Arts Symposium (Sep. 4, 2014) hosted by Voices in Colour in collaboration with Visual Arts Network of South Africa (VANSA).
From left Reginald Bakwena-Thapong organisation from Botswana, Mulemo Moilo Vansa (VANSA) and Mthabisi Phili.
How conducive is the current state of arts infrastructure to supporting young emerging Zimbabwean artists?
The art industry in Zimbabwe is highly unstructured in a way. Artists that work very hard have a chance off getting discovered but only if they are at the right place, and at the right time. In brief, I think there are many talented artists out here that go unnoticed. This is mainly because although they have potential, they lack the guidance and inspiration to engage in full time practice. There is not enough support for artists in Zimbabwe, not enough education, not enough art sales, not enough galleries etc.
How has this lack of support influenced your experience as a young curator working both outside of Voices of Colour and as a part of it?
The experience has led to the same conclusion again and again: we need a greater commitment to art education and we need formal artistic structures. In the long run, Zimbabwe needs to come up with a degree program for art. Currently, we can only resort to workshops to educate and inspire practicing artists.
Considering the impact of Voices in Colour, how has the organization’s approach to addressing the shortcomings of Zimbabwe’s art infrastructure helped stimulate the local art scene?
At Voices in Colour, our approach is to work on a one-on-one basis. We work with one artist for a time period greater than one year. This makes our process long, detailed and our impact very high, however as a result our surface area is very small, in terms of who we can work with. Our approach is to ultimately inspire and motivate. Artists thrive best in an environment where there is more traffic and friction with other artists and we try to create an avenue for critical discussion about art practices and methods.
© mULENGA J MULENGA. Installation view at eNjube Context Program: A Township Encounter, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Voices in Colour.
Being based in Bulawayo, what role has the city played in comparison to working in the capital Harare?
Harare is the capital city of Zimbabwe, however it is hard to say since it’s not really the cultural and artistic capital. Bulawayo seems to be the place where most art initiatives and artists come from. Harare however has better economic opportunities and most artists move there for better revenue; that influences productions and art activities but not creativity and great ideas.
Mthabisi Phili’s practice is deeply rooted in the idea of the Zimbabwean experience in the Mugabe era and explores issues of censorship, accountability and the balance between individuals and institutional systems.
Having founded the organisation Voices in Colour in 2011, Phili has helped create awareness around the need for artistic initiatives to initiate and stimulate the Zimbabwean artistic discourse. Since its inception, Voices in Colour has presented 4 projects, including the exhibition Reciprocal Narratives about Place about Home, that reviewed, “the parallels and differences in our interactions with place or places, and how place(s) impose on our identity, perceptions, experiences, and sense of belonging.”
The exhibition which formed part of a proposal for a curatorial intensive hosted in Johannesburg by Independent Curators International, served as both an opportunity to explore new avenues and as recognition of the work already done by Phili.
This article forms part of the series Next Chapter: Inquiries into emerging artistic practice
Zimbabwe | Doing our part to combat immappancy
All images courtesy of Voices in Colour.